Shiny Shelf


Batman @ 70

By Mark Clapham on 12 October 2009

I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading DC’s ‘Batman Chronicles’, and playing the new ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’ game. As it’s the character’s 70th anniversary this year, these two interpretations of the character are interesting in terms of his enduring appeal.

The ‘Chronicles’ volumes are an excellent idea, a chronological reprint of every ‘Batman’ comic, from the very start, in low-priced paperback form. As an instant hit, the Batman soon spread out from his appearances in ‘Detective Comics’ to his own quarterly book, as well as specials for the World’s Fair and suchlike, and each ‘Chronicle’ only covers a few months of publication. I’m on the third, and the original creative team are still on board – Bill Finger is writing most of the scripts, creator Bob Kane is still at his drawing desk, and Jerry Robinson is also right in there.

The main characters and template are there within the first year of publication: Batman, Robin, Joker, Catwoman, Commissioner Gordon. The darkened streets of the city, the shadow of the bat, criminals marauding citizens and getting a righteous bat-pasting in return. Seventy years on, every variation of the Batman franchise is still working within a template that Kane and a handful of collaborators set down in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It’s a remarkable, sustained acheivement.

As with Superman and other characters created during this period, the ‘golden age’ stories also have a certain direct appeal that overcomes the crude execution and gives them a punch that a lot of later, more family-friendly iterations lack. Most of the stories here are incredibly straightforward mysteries, crime stories or weird adventure tales, without the burden of tieing into other comics or fit to a formula of ’superheroics’. While the ’silver age’ comics of the 50s and 60s often have wilder storylines, they do so within a more rigid idea of what is and isn’t acceptable in a superhero kids comics. In the 1940s, those walls hadn’t been built.

Bang up to date, ‘Arkham Asylum’ is the very latest mainstream iteration of the franchise, winning rave reviews and selling a ton of copies on various consoles. While there have been good Batman games before, albeit in the deep past when 8-bits walked the Earth, this is the first to absolutely translate a feeling of being Batman, and of being in his world, into a videogame fully formed without compromise. This isn’t a games site, so beyond saying ‘It’s great’ I won’t talk about the gameplay of ‘Arkham Asylum’.

What is worth talking about is how ‘Arkham’ remoulds the franchise to its own purposes, and demonstrates how Batman still works in the 21st century. Not cleaving to any film or comic, Rocksteady Studios have created their own version of the Batverse for their game, taking what they want and leaving other elements – this is a continuity where there hasn’t been a Robin yet, but Batgirl has already been disabled by the Joker’s bullet and become Oracle. The Joker is the main antagonist, but more recent villains like Bane and Harley Quinn play prominent roles, and there are nods towards even newer characters like Hush.

Picking elements isn’t just about what you include, of course, but what you leave out, and here Rocksteady have chosen wisely: the Batmobile only appears as a prop, saving us a tacked on driving sub-game, while Catwoman and Penguin aren’t delusional in the same sense as the other villains on the loose, so they’re out as well. The end result is a version of the Bat universe that is, in it’s own way, as coherent and contemporary as the relatively realistic version of Christopher Nolan’s movies.

Like Nolan, Rocksteady have taken the essential, primal appeal of the character and given it not just their own spin, but added a new layer to the franchise in the process – in this case a crystallisation of Arkham as a multi-level institution, a self-contained island fortress with jagged cliffs, modern blocks, slick medical centres and crude penitentiaries. I don’t know how many of the cool ideas here – like Killer Croc’s ‘cell’ – have been seen in comics or cartoons before, but the way they’re all brought together into one consistent locale feels like it should become the default portrayal or Arkham from now on.

Whether on the page in 1939 or on a screen in 2009, Batman’s essential appeal remains the same – with endless stoicism and nobility, he faces down cruel thugs and terrifying villains and beats the living hell out of them. When created, it was exciting enough to see a four-colour image of a blue-cloaked man smacking a zoot-suited gangster in the jaw, whereas nowadays you hit A then B and Y together to see him a kevlar-coated Batman slomo flipover one thugs head, grab another and nearly break him in two. The medium may change, the method of delivery altering, but boy is the message always the same: KAPOW, wrongdoer.

Of course, the origin and modus operandi are iconic and unchanging, but it’s interesting what other, smaller elements are consistent. While Superman never gets a scratch unless he’s doused in Kryptonite or fighting cosmic spacegods, Batman seems to be at his best while coming back from a serious beatdown. ‘The Black Casebook’, a recent collection of SF-themed Bat-stories from the 50s and 60s, show Batman repeatedly thrown into nightmare scenarios, whether it be wandering an alien planet after the apparent death of Robin, or developing a phobia that prevents him from being Batman. In those early Bob Kane strips he’s frequently knocked out and beaten, recovering quickly due to his own endurance training. ‘Arkham Asylum’ sees Batman poisoned, tormented and set upon, always rising up to endure (albeit right after you’ve hit Retry).

There’s also a thread of pulp science fiction in virtually every version of the franchise – even Nolan’s uber-realism has room for a little fear toxin, after all. The Joker and Hugo Strange (who, should continuity nuts wish to follow up on this, seems to have created precursors to both Venom and the Scarecrow’s fear gas) are both turning men into monsters and unleashing horrible, transforming poisons, from the earliest strips. In Gotham, toxic chemicals can kill, but they also have a strong tendency to turn you into something nasty first. ‘Arkham Asylum’ ties a lot of these plot device chemicals together for its story, and ends up with something remarkably similar to Hugo Strange’s creation of ‘the Monster Men’ back in 1939.

The odd thing does change, and permanently. The greatest trick Spider-Man ever pulled was to convince the world that he, and he alone, was the superhero who came out with the constant sub-Bondian quips while fighting. Pre-Spidey, you couldn’t shut Batman, Robin, Superman and every other hero going from throwing out zingers with every punch. ‘You look like you need a lie down!’ yells Batman (or words to that effect) as he smacks some crim into unconsciousness, a jolly one-liner always easing the pain of a major head injury. Nowadays Spider-Man is the chatty one, and anyone else doing that schtick seems like an imitator – the rest are a lot less gobby, and Batman is the tightest-lipped of all.

Overall, though, Batman is Batman – he saw his parents killed by crime, so he fights an unwinnable fight, ever night. Seventy years since he first cold-cocked a gangster, he’s still out there. Personally, I was fascinated by Adam West and the cartoons as a tiny child, read those paperback digests of old 60s comics as soon as I could read, queued to see the 1989 movie, and took an evening out of my one, very quick trip to America to see ‘The Dark Knight’ as soon as I could. He’s my favourite character. I think he’s the best character ever created.

In Paul Pope’s ‘Batman: Year 100′, he’s still out there in the futuristic dystopia of 2039, fighting crime. At the end, it’s pretty much stated that he’s still Bruce Wayne, still the same Batman, unaging and relentless, needing no explanation or mcguffin for his longevity. It’s a neat meta-commentary on the character’s iconic status: chances are, unless our civilisation completely falls over in the mean time, in 2039 there will still be stories about Batman, and he’ll still be Bruce Wayne, orphaned playboy, forever a young man.

Or, to put it more succinctly, in those final words from Grant Morrison’s drolly titled ‘Batman RIP’:

‘Batman and Robin will never die!’


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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